Westway, the Highway That Tried to Eat New York, Defeated 25 Years Ago This Week


The Saw Mill, the Bronx River, and parts of the FDR were closed due to flooding this morning thanks to the monsoon that kicked in before dawn. But the West Side Highway, a.k.a. the Joe DiMaggio? Traffic is flowing fine there, thanks in large part because we never built Westway, the crazed multi-billion-dollar-city-in-the-river landfill project that Presidents, governors, and mayors desperately fought to build back in the 1980s. You don’t remember this? Count your lucky stars. It was one of the last great attempted public arm-twistings by the Permanent Government — a bid to give the ever-campaign-generous real estate industry its most coveted desire: More Manhattan land on which to build.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the great citizen victories of our time: The defeat of Westway. A band of creative activists, aided by attorneys dedicated to public-service, and back-stopped by a thoughtful and brave federal judge managed to beat the entire power structure of the city at its own game. On September 30, 1985, instead of an unnecessary super highway and more high-rise development in the river, we got $1.725 billion — the trade-in value for the project’s initial cost. Instead of buying excavators and asphalt, the money went for mass transit, the real life-blood of the city, the inexorable engine of Democracy on Wheels that makes places like New York work.

The trade-in, said Gene Russianoff, one of the architects of that victory and the longtime staff attorney for NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign, “was a huge victory for New York City subway and bus riders. It meant $1.4 billion to fix the city’s crumbling mass transit, from buying new subway cars to replacing aging signals and track.”

Marcy Benstock, the upper West Sider whose anger at the thick soot that piled up on her window sill every day turned her into one of the city’s earliest and most able environmental activists, says that the decision to dump Westway looks smarter all the time. “With climate change and more severe storms hitting the Westway area of the Hudson River,” says Benstock, the director of the Clean Air Campaign, “the decision not to build a development site at that damage-prone location now looks wiser than ever.”

Others who worked tirelessly to win the money-shift were Margaret Gabel of the Manhattan chapter of Friends of the Earth, and Mitchell Bernard the dogged lead attorney in Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lawsuit that convinced Manhattan federal judge Thomas P. Griesa that the public was being hoodwinked.

Also adding to the pressure was a steady drumbeat of stories in the Times by the great columnist (and former Voice writer) Sydney Schanberg.

Schanberg is still typing. Griesa is still on the bench, dispensing wisdom. Russianoff and Benstock are still battling the rear-guard battles to keep “Son of Westway” projects at bay. And that lovely new broad boulevard that sweeps down the West Side, adequately conveying traffic, while giving bikers, joggers and strollers their own wonderful pathway along the river? We got it for a song compared to Westway. A round of applause please.